The latest census data shows that around 40% of Australians indicate that they have no religion. This has been coming for a while. And we all know this in our own lives: in our families, in our workplaces, in our social groups. Religious practice is becoming increasingly strange. And this cannot but affect my own experience of faith. Especially when it is challenged strongly. And such challenges often shine a light on my faith.
It can be easy to come up with trite retorts to declarations of unbelief. However, this is not how I usually experience such encounters. Such encounters challenge me to clarify my own experience of God. This is not a bad thing. First, it is more charitable to shine the light on ourselves. Second, we are told in the scriptures to be ready to give reasons for our hope. So, what should we do? I’d like to focus on the gospel. How we read it can help us take stock of our own relationship with God, get a clearer perspective on our own faith.
To do this, I’d like us to reflect on three questions. First, what do we put in our barns? What is it that gives us a sense of security? Second, how might God demand such a life from us? In our gospel, we assume that the rich man dies, but does the demand have to come in this way? Might not God demand this life from him in another way; for example, by sending round all his friends, who have no food?
The third question that I’d like us to reflect on is: do we see such a demand by God as a good thing or a bad thing; that is, do we see such a demand as punishment or as a gift? Let me explain with an example from my own life.
I love to have all the answers. I like being a few questions ahead. I don’t know where this comes from. But, I do have some theories. I definitely try to fill my barns with knowledge. And not just knowledge – systems of knowledge. I need to know how things fit together, where questions go, and how to get from one thing to another.
Now God demands this life from me often. Probably more than I realise. And it is usually done in the form of another person. Someone appears in my life who doesn’t fit. Or a person will ask me a question that overturns my system or my assumptions. Quite often it is a question from some primary schooler, who simply points out something so obvious that only an idiot would have missed it. When this happens, the demand from God is then: well, what are you going to do now? In such circumstances, there are really only two options. Ignore the question and the person, or give up my system, my security and start again.
This brings me to that third question: when this happens to me, is it a good thing or a bad thing? Now because I have invested so much of my identity in being a smarty-pants, when I come across a person or a question that exposes me, it is obviously hard to deal with. I suffer. I don’t know who I am. I lose confidence. But, is this a bad thing?
Most of us can probably recognise that, although it feels like a bad thing at the time, in the long run it is a good thing. In fact, in the realm of knowledge, this is the only way discoveries happen. Challenges and obstacles to our perspective are the very things that stretch us, the very things that create new knowledge.
We might each of us consider these questions: what do I fill my barns with? That is: what do I base my security on? How does God demand this life from me? How does God call this supposed security into question? And when this happens, do I view it as a curse or as a blessing?
The answers we get to these questions might go a long way to telling us what kind of God we believe in. More than that, they might even tell us whether that God is worth believing in at all. Indeed, we might even think about our religion in such a way. When we meet people who don’t believe, who challenge our beliefs and the way we live them, is God making a demand of us right now?
Does our security truly make us secure; secure enough, that is, to open ourselves to God’s word whatever it demands of us? Have we placed our faith in God or only in the barns that we have constructed for ourselves, barns designed to keep God and the world out?
So, in our Mass today, how are we responding to God’s word? Are we responding fearfully by building barns or are we offering ourselves openly? Really: what kind of a future are we preparing for? One of closed-off isolation or one of communion?